Alphabet makes a ‘dirty’ city’s heritage Spick and span

Local historian Mike Spick has produced an A to Z of Sheffield that includes queens, philanthropists and railways. He talks to Chris Bond.

The Victorian art critic and philanthropist John Ruskin once described Sheffield, somewhat disparagingly, as a “dirty picture in a golden frame.”

He was no doubt alluding to the grime of the factories and the inner-city slums which not only blighted Sheffield in the 19th-century, but industrial towns and cities across the country.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Sheffield, though, also has the majestic Peak District on its doorstep and both the city’s industrial heritage and its green spaces form part of a new A to Z history of Sheffield devised by historian Mike Spick.

A retired Sheffield Local Studies librarian, Spick has spent 12 months researching his illustrated talk which he is presenting as part of the Off The Shelf Festival of Words this weekend.

He takes a look at the Steel 
City’s history and topography as well as shedding light on some of the people, places and lesser known events that have left their mark on the area.

“It’s a purely personal ramble through history with what I think are interesting little snippets,”
 he says.

“Sometimes I found something interesting but there had to be documentary evidence and I had to be able to illustrate it because I need to be able to talk for a couple of minutes on each topic. But the beauty is if someone’s not interested in one subject there’ll be something they are interested in along in a minute.”

His bite-size guide goes in alphabetical order so, for instance, M is for Mary Queen of Scots, who was imprisoned in Sheffield during the 16th-century. As Spick points out, rather than being incarcerated in a gloomy cell Mary was placed in the care of the Earl of Shrewsbury and proceeded to ruin him.

“As a royal, she was used to lavish entertainment and gifts and on several occasions the Earl begged Queen Elizabeth to be shot of her. But by the time she finally agreed in 1584 he was a broken man whose wife had left him.”

He explains how Sheffield evolved. “If you go back to the mid 18th-century Sheffield was the size of a big village or a small town, it was of no particular note. But once the Industrial Revolution started Sheffield was able to exploit its raw materials and the city owes its early industrial success to the fact it had an abundance of water which was used to power the water wheels,” he says.

“In the 19th century, Rotherham and Sheffield were pretty much the same size, it was only when entrepreneurs established Sheffield as the steel capital of the world that its fortunes really changed.”

Philanthropists like Sir John Brown, known as the father of the South Yorkshire iron trade, Thomas Firth and later J G Graves had a lasting impact on the city. “The idea of modern philanthropists like Bill Gates giving their money away is nothing new as far as Sheffield is concerned because the city has a strong tradition of philanthropy.”

The development of the railways was also important, although they took a while to arrive.

“Sheffield is built on a tilt, the east is low while the west of the city is on higher ground which meant it wasn’t easy to build a railway line. So the early railways by-passed Sheffield altogether and the focus was on Chesterfield and Rotherham. It wasn’t until the third quarter of the 19th century that Sheffield had a main line.”

He points out that Meadowhall was once the site of the biggest steel works in Europe, while Paradise Square, now the legal district, was built to house the well to do and was also used for public meetings. “John Wesley came to preach in the square and he later wrote that it was ‘the largest congregation I ever saw on a weekday’.”

So how does Sheffield compare with its industrial past? “It’s a lot cleaner. During its industrial heyday you would get black rain because of the pollution, not just from factories but houses, too. But what makes Sheffield so unusual is it is right next to the Peak District National Park and it’s actually the greenest city in Europe in terms of open spaces and woodland.”

He hopes that people will 
find his potted history interesting. “I learned something new about the city almost every day and I hope the talk will encourage people to look at the city in a different way.

“I think people tend to take where they live for granted and sometimes we need to explore where we come from to understand who we are today.”

Mike Spick is at the Central United Reformed Church, Sheffield, on Saturday at 6pm. Tickets are priced £6. For more information about Off The Shelf events in Sheffield visit